For some, the idea of attending a conference can be a bit intimidating: you enter a crowded room full of people and everyone is chatting away and seemingly busy. You slap on your name tag and wonder where you should even begin. Thoughts like these may pop into your head: Should I grab a drink? I feel a bit overdressed. Where do I start? Who are all of these people? Okay, get it together and start introducing yourself.
If this is what a typical networking event looks like to you as a freelancer, then you’re not alone.
However, with the help of today’s post, you won’t get lost in the shuffle like most. I’ll show you the best ways to tackle your next conference so that you can actually get what you came for.
Why Should You Go?
Before you even register for your next conference, you should figure out why it’s worth your time to go.
Are you hoping to learn more about a specific topic or hear a lecture from your favorite speaker? Or are you looking for an expert opinion on a certain topic that you may be struggling or just starting out with?
Your first step—even before registering—is to figure out why you want to go and what you hope to get out of this.
Check out the lineup and really consider how each event or session may help you.
Check Out the Schedule Beforehand
Now that you have your ‘why’ figured out, you’re ready to look at the event’s individual sessions. You’ll need to keep your ‘why’ at the forefront when deciding whether to attend each session.
So with your ‘why’ in mind, read each session carefully and put a checkmark next to the events you’d like to attend. On your first go around, you can choose as many as you like since you’ll eventually narrow this down.
Next, take the events you’ve marked and think about what you hope to gain from each session.
Now rank the events in order of the most helpful or useful at the top and the interesting but maybe not-as-helpful events at the bottom.
You’ll want to prioritize this list and drop any events that you may not find useful after further consideration.
If two events overlap, determine which one is closer to what you hope to gain and drop the other one.
Essentially, you’ll be creating a basic itinerary for the conference so you can be as organized as possible when you get there.
Conferences can be chaotic due to the sheer amount of people at them. However, if you already have a plan in place, then you’ll know exactly where you need to be and all you’ll have to do is navigate through the crowds.
Connect with Speakers Prior to the Event
Another great way to get one step ahead of the game is to connect with the speakers at the events you’d like to attend.
Find them on social media and send them a quick note or shoutout. You can introduce yourself and mention the event which you both will have in common.
Keep your introduction short and to the point: “Hi Mr. Speaker! I’m Devan and I’m looking forward to your event at the next conference!”
Mention the event or conference specifically and then move on. This is not the time to give your elevator pitch— you’re just making an informal connection.
Tips for the Day of Your Event
Once you’ve mapped out your schedule for the event and kept up on the latest tweets and posts from the guest speakers, it’s time for the conference itself.
Keep an eye on your time and make sure you arrive at your event as early as possible because the seats tend to fill up fast. You don’t want to be stuck in the back since it can be distracting.
Another thing that may distract you is taking notes.
Inevitably, there will be a lot of information to take in and you’d be crazy not to write at least some of it down.
Write Down Key Takeaways
But that doesn’t mean you should be recording every word out of the speaker’s mouth.
Listen carefully for key takeaways and be prepared to write them down. This could be on paper, typed on a laptop, or recorded on your phone. The idea is to figure out how you’ll take notes before the speaker starts.
Even if the sessions from the conference are recorded, it’s still in your best interest to jot down a few takeaways since most of us don’t have the time to listen to the entire conference or session over again. If you can, that’s great, but you may not have the option.
Take notes, but be smart about what notes to take. You don’t want to miss something important because you were trying to capture everything.
After the speaker is finished, there’s usually a meet-and-greet networking opportunity at the end.
Be Patient at the Meet-and-Greet
Depending on the size of the conference, the speaker could get ambushed with other hopeful networkers. Don’t feel hopeless if you’re not the first one to get a question in and don’t feel bad if you’re somewhere in the back.
You should be using the plan you mapped out before the event to determine who’s worth waiting for. If you really want to meet with the speaker, don’t be afraid to be the last one standing.
Many times, people will get tired of waiting and leave, which increases your chances of speaking with the expert as a reward for your patience.
That leads us perfectly into my next point. When networking, you want to make a genuine connection.
I know it’s important to have an elevator pitch ready, but you don’t want to immediately blurt that out right when you meet someone. Instead, introduce yourself and listen.
Listening is the part that often gets overlooked when networking. We tend to switch into ‘network speed daters’ who lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to form real connections.
With that in mind, ask the right questions—ones that show an interest in the speaker and not only ones that have your needs in mind—and listen carefully. You’ll also want to maintain good eye contact, smile and stand up straight the entire time. These simple body language communicators tell your speaker that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.
Don’t forget to have your question ready so you don’t waste the speaker’s time. And when it’s time to wrap up, ask for their business card.
Exchange Business Cards
There’s no doubt that your speaker received a good amount of business cards that day so by getting theirs, you can do the following up. After all, they won’t have time to send thank you notes to everyone who stopped by to chat, but with their contact information, you can send them an email at your leisure..
With each business card that you exchange, try to jot down some important takeaways for each person, and I don’t mean what they look like. Write down a connection you two shared or why you’d like to follow up later.
This may take you all of 30 seconds to do in the moment, but could help you create a solid connection for the future.
Follow Up & Use What You’ve Learned
Speaking of which, send a friendly follow up to anyone you meet and mention how you connected.
Ideally, you should wait to follow up at least a week, but no more than 4 weeks, since a lot can take place in that amount of time. Give the person a chance to regroup from the conference, but not enough time that they’ll forget who you are.
Send your follow up and be diligent in practicing anything that you’ve learned from the conference. If possible, re-read your notes on the way home and really spend some time organizing your thoughts into actionable steps that you can take moving forward.
It’s one thing to get excited about implementing new strategies while at the event, but it’s another to follow through. Trust me, the latter will be much more rewarding.